Watermen Preparing for Crab Season

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While the Department of Natural Resources’ Winter Dredge Survey for crabs is still a few weeks off, Eastern Shore watermen are gearing up for another season of catching the Chesapeake Bay’s favorite little blue delicacies.

Winter icing of the Chesapeake isn’t just dangerous for watermen’s wallets — too much ice on the Bay means watermen can’t work, and watermen lost about four weeks this oyster season because of it — but ice can be dangerous for the iconic blue crabs, too.

“Right after that ice, we saw a lot of dead crabs,” Talbot County Watermen’s Association President Bunky Chance said.

Chance said ice lowers the oxygen levels in the water, and the older, larger crabs are usually the first to die when that happens.

Watermen were concerned at first when they started seeing “dead crab after dead crab” turn up after they got a chance to get back out on the water near the end of winter, Chance said.

But after the first week back to work oystering, watermen started seeing live crabs move about again — albeit smaller, undersized crabs, which Chance said could suggest a slow start to the season.

A wholesale buyer and distributor on Deal Island in Somerset County, said there has been a change in DNR’s regulations this year that watermen must abide by, a change that only really affects crabbers in the lower Bay.

In an effort to protect spawning-size female blue crabs, DNR raised the minimum size for peeler crabs from April 1 through July 14 from 3¼ inches to 3½ inches. The minimum size for peeler crabs caught between July 15 and Dec. 15 is already 3½ inches. This is an action slated only for the 2015 season.

Last year’s Winter Dredge Survey conducted by the DNR did not bode well for blue crabs. The survey estimated the blue crab spawning female population was just below the minimum safe threshold of 70 million crabs, which sparked state agencies that manage the Bay’s blue crab population to bolster measures to protect the population’s spawning stock.

According to the DNR, raising the peeler size through July 14 will “allow more crabs to molt to maturity and successfully mate and spawn.”

The regulation change affects lower Bay crabbers the most, because blue crabs tend to be smaller in the Bay’s lower waters, due to higher salinity levels in the water. Blue crabs tend to be larger in the Bay’s northern waters, due to lower salinity levels.

Chance said the peeler regulation doesn’t effect Talbot’s watermen as much as it would Somerset’s watermen.

This year’s Winter Dredge Survey isn’t due out until May, according to a DNR spokesman, and officials aren’t commenting on preliminary results.

Overall, though, it looks like it’s going to be a pretty good season.

Prices watermen are getting for a bushel of crabs from wholesalers is about the same as it was last year, around $100 a bushel.

But both also said the season is never set in stone, either good or bad, with crabs. They could be here today and gone tomorrow.

Plus, watermen must consider what Chance described as a “layover time” between oyster season and when crab season takes off in the warmer spring months.

The DNR extended oyster season, which typically ends on the last day of March, by two weeks to make up for some of the four weeks of lost time watermen couldn’t work because the Bay was iced over.

“We still lost four weeks. To get two is helpful, but it’s still a net loss for us on time,” said Chance, who extended his thanks to the DNR and Gov. Larry Hogan’s office for making the oyster season extension happen. “Even though this two-week extension is a big help, it’s still a long gap ‘till those crabs get going.”

Source:  myeasternshoremd.com, 4-6-2015

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